Written by Sophie McNeil Wolf

Starting off as a theatre major at Millsaps College, Mary Sanders Ferris loved designing and creating sets for productions. There was one problem. She hated the hours of the theatre.

“You were always working at weird times,” she says.

After two years at Millsaps, she reevaluated. Ferris took her design skills to Mississippi State University, where she finished with a degree in interior design. Graduating in 2005, the interior design market was hot. Red hot.

“When I got out of school, hospitality was booming. I tell everybody, I got out of school at a really lucky time… the economy was great.”

Ferris’ dad had been the chief financial officer of Viking Corporation and with family in Greenwood, the Brandon native had spent time around the area. Fred Carl had recently built the much-anticipated Alluvian downtown. While in the Delta visiting family, the Viking Range founder introduced Ferris to the designer of the Alluvian, Forrest Perkins. Before finishing her degree, he took her in as an intern at his D.C. office and offered her a full-time job after graduation.

Her most memorable project from those days at Forrest Perkins, the Jefferson Hotel, almost killed her, she jokes. A favorite of President Barack Obama, the 99-room luxury boutique hotel is three blocks from the White House.

“Normally in hotel rooms, the rooms stack so that you have room types. In a typical hotel, you might have 10 room types for a 400-room hotel. This building had 100 rooms and 75 room types. I can definitely say that I’ll never have another project like that. It was amazing,” she says.

Then, the economy started to slump and Ferris’s father had a bout with cancer. Moving closer to home, Ferris had her first office in Fondren in the “yellow house” on North State Street as Mary Sanders Ferris Interior Design, working part time for Forrest Perkins and clients such as family friend Bill Latham.

New Orleans called her south six months later, burned out after an intense work schedule and recession drying up design work. Contracting as a toy rep, Ferris also took on design work in between. Through Jackson connections, Ferris met Michael Boerner and Jamie Wier, architects of, at the time, newly formed Wier Boerner in Fondren. The two were working on a potential hotel design and through connections and heard about her work with hotels.

One day Wier Boerner asked Ferris if she knew Bill Latham, which she did. The pair asked her to collaborate on a new concept – Babalu Tacos & Tapas.

“My family had Thanksgiving and by that afternoon we were hand painting the ‘BABALU’ mural (at Duling School). It took us a long time to figure out what would go there, but my brother and I worked it out. My brother, to this day, still paints all the Babalu signs. I have given that part of my career up,” she jests.

Working closely with Latham, Ferris balanced the modern aspects of the concept. However, the recession also played a large part in the design customers know today.

“We had no budget. If you look at design from the recession on, everything became very industrial and simple. It was mainly because no one had money. People began reusing materials. Before, you could get away with a marble wall – you couldn’t do that anymore. You basically had to learn how to design with paint. That became what I was really good at – designing on a budget. The idea of murals – simplified design – that was a lot of what dictated Babalu.”

Concrete countertops, empty wine bottles on shelves, TV projection of ‘I Love Lucy’ episodes, exposed ceilings – all of these elements were part of cost-saving, creative thinking. The same is true for the posters – now a signature design element in Babalu locations around the country. “I had a huge wall. I thought, ‘What am I going to fill this up with?’ They cost me nothing.”

Ferris sees the design of Babalu as the backdrop for the energy of the restaurant. “There is so much movement with different plates coming out at different times, an open concept bar and other excitement. It needed to be subtle.”

To present, Ferris has had a hand in designing each Babalu location around the country – nine – with more potentially to open in the future.

In 2014, Ferris made the full leap to Jackson and bought a midcentury modern home, designed by well-known Jackson residential architect Jack Staats, in Fondren.

“Moving back to Jackson really got me interested in midcentury design. I had never been in a place before that really had good midcentury architecture,” she says. “It felt like home. Nothing else had done that.”

Thinking back on her connections, Fondren is a thread that has woven together many of her experiences. “It’s funny, the sense of community in Fondren – even if you don’t hang out with them on a Saturday night, you know people in the Fondren community. It has opened up a lot of doors for me.”

Collaboration has continued with projects such as Sugar Ray’s Sweet Shop in downtown Jackson, working with Fondrenite Ian Hanson, and law firm Forman Watkins, where Ferriss is utilizing the talents of D+P Design Build.

“Fondren has been on the front end of design and development in Jackson. It has shown the city how to have smart concepts throughout a space and that it is worth paying someone to have a vision. Collaboration and sense of community has played a key role in that.”